The Power of a Smile


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(Photo credit: Łukasz Strachanowski)

In 1989, Robert Zajonc published a study on the emotional effect of producing a smile.[1] The subjects in the study were asked to repeat certain vowel sounds that forced their faces into a variety of different expressions. The sounds were grouped so that some would force the facial characteristics of a smile such as a long “e”. Others were geared toward facial characteristics that tended toward dissatisfaction such as a long “u”. The subjects were then asked how they felt and the results were remarkable. Those that made the motions associated with smiling reported feeling better than those that made motions associated with dissatisfaction.

This study has some far reaching implications if we take the time to extract the nutrients out of it by applying it to our lives. If we recognize the significance, we can gain some insight into an age old chicken and egg question related to emotions and behaviors. The power of the emotional currents we experience in life, at least in part, come from how we behave. Some of us get this chicken and egg scenario the other way around where we allow our behaviors to flow from our emotions. While this autopilot mode may be fine if we are experiencing relational harmony and all is right with the world, the picture is not so rosy for all of us. Some of us regularly struggle with bouts of emotional agony even though we recognize that at least in part it is at our own hand. This type of scenario, if left to the winds of emotion followed by behavior can cause a vicious negative feedback loop that traps us in cycles of misery.

There is no suggestion here that emotions “always” follow behaviors and that’s all there is to it. There appears to be a dynamic interplay at work between emotions and behaviors. There are also some cases where legitimate physiological reasons such as hormone imbalances from physical damage can cause such things as depression and so on. This is more to make the point that there is also an opportunity for us to at least participate in setting the tone for how we experience life by committing to the discipline to act as we choose to be, not necessarily how we are at the moment. Our choices on how to behave can actually contribute to bringing a better state of being to reality.

The power of choice is embedded in this insight into our nature. While it may be limited in nature, it is still something worth absorbing and translating into reality through disciplined choice. For instance; if we want to choose to become a more caring and sensitive person, it will not happen by thinking it alone. We must actually begin behaving as a caring person would, then the associated emotions and so on will follow. The key here is choosing a discipline that ultimately feeds onto our chemistry. As it turns out, there may be some wisdom underneath that old saying; “fake it till you make it”

[1] “Emotion and Facial Efference: A Theory Reclaimed” by Robert B. Zajonc Also see “Facial Efference and the Experience of Emotion” by Pamela K. Adelmann and Robert B. Zajonc

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One response to “The Power of a Smile

  1. This is very insightful! One of many issues I struggle with is procrastinating which is based on feelings of the moment followed by excuses that keeps me trapped in a cycle of misery like you stated here. So, in order to change the behavior in areas where I procrastinate I need to become more disciplined. I am writing a note to remind myself of that every day.

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